I have a small tin container of smaller tin film cans I took from my grandparents’ house in 2001 when my grandmother passed away. They, particularly my grandfather, were prolific shooters of 8mm film. Not only did I come home with this tin of 9 small reels, but I also came home with a giant plastic tub of large reels of 8mm film. The big tub of reels were all old family films- delightful, fun, almost cliche family home movies. They are all poorly shot, some are double-exposed, which I loved to intentionally do in film school myself, but my grandfather did it because he would accidentally flip the reel around in the camera just one-too-many times. I digitized those as soon as I could afford to with both my time and my money. (I’m the right person in my family to take over this work- I went to film school for undergrad, and then later became a Librarian/archivist with my specialty in film/video.) Each reel was carefully labeled by my grandmother, and seeing her handwriting makes my heart soar. The labels are almost as precious as seeing her on film, laughing, running, playing tennis, feeding my mother and uncle.
But, I’d lost track of the little tin case of small reels. And, when I eventually found it again, I had developed a strange sense of uneasiness around it. The handwriting was different- my grandfather’s. And, I wondered why it was separated from the rest. Was the content gross? Was it porny? Or, did it contain sensitive content about his patients? They were both Doctors, but they were also Freudian shrinks… I set the tin case on a shelf in the basement- but still somewhere cool and dry.
Now, about eight years later, one of the founders of the company I work for and his wife approached me about their gigantic stash of family films dating back to 1939. It inspired me to look again at the little tin case, and this time I regarded it with more open curiosity as well as a greater sense of urgency around digitizing the images within. After singing the praises of a local film preservationist, historian, and digitization expert to the family I’d assisted, I called him myself and brought the tin case to him the next day. There is no one I’ve met that takes better care of film and still enjoys the stories to be found in all of those tiny frames more than Gary Lacher.
Gary called me about a week later, and said “Wow! You really brought quite a treasure trove of memories. I’m not sure where he got so much color 8mm film, but it’s in pretty great shape, and it’s rare to see that much color film from the early ’40s. I was able to clean the film and digitize all of it. And, for obvious reasons, I’ll give you a military discount.” Ahhh, I thought, wow! This is footage from my Grandfather’s time in the Navy. I could not remember listening to any details about his time serving during World War II. I knew much of our family was home safe in the states, that he was a Doctor and an officer. He had yet to meet my grandmother- a gorgeous and terrifyingly brilliant young student who would graduate from Radcliffe in 1943 and Columbia School of Physicians & Surgeons in 1948.
It just so happened that my mother was coming to visit the weekend after I picked up the film and digital files from Gary, and we sat down that Saturday night together and began to watch through the reels. We had done this before, years ago, with the family films from the big plastic bin as well. But, this time was different. We were sitting down together to see through a window into Bill Murphy’s life, at a time that he never shared much about with any of us.
My mother knew he’d been stationed “near the South Pacific.” The first reel of film had burned-in titles written in all caps and was called “The Grand Opening.” Throughout the film, and with the help of the great Internet brain, we were able to place him at a temporary US Navy base in Brisbane, Australia.
At this point, we started to feel excited about this treasure trove. I started to brainstorm about who I could reach out to in hopes to share the footage with relatives of people documented in the films or to share with nonprofits working to document WWII. The next reel’s titles read “MARY FROM KANSAS” and “FiRST NAVY NURSE.”
Of course, we became very excited that we might have footage of the first-ever nurse to serve in the US Navy! But, thanks again to the internet, we gained an education in women who served in the US military.
Mary, I’m not sure who you were. But I love this film of you, and I thank you for your service.
Most of the reels in the little tin case were filled with images of the base, a little of nearby Brisbane, and lots of footage of his friends. My mother remembered hearing stories of how he loved the men and women he served with.
Then we pulled up one reel that began in color film and transitioned to black and white. It was deeply traumatic footage from the battlefield- firing cannons from a Navy ship, and then footage of death and taking prisoners-of-war. We were both horrified and a bit disbelieving, questioning of the content we beheld. But, I felt that trauma in my bones. I felt a deep sadness for my grandfather to have witnessed and been a part of war. I’m not sure if he was sad too, but I’ll be sad for him. I’m not ready to post the film, and may never be. I’ll be reaching out to some other archivists and historians to see how it can be of use.
Grandpa Bill, I’m not entirely sure who you were, but I love you, and I thank you for your service.